As a former merchant ship master, I’d like to comment on the recent article by Don Dykstra on a professional mariner’s view of sailboats (“A view from the bridge,” Issue No. 110, Nov./Dec. 2000). First, my background: I am an Australian, and I held a British foreign-going master’s certificate until eight years ago. I sailed as master with several companies on vessels ranging from 1,000 to 125,000 dwt during a period of more than 30 years. Most of these were management companies based in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the U.S., and Britain. The crews, including officers, were mainly mixed nationalities with various degrees of skill. I am now ashore in my own business, due to lack of employment opportunities that remain open for people like me.
The conditions on a U.S.-flagged vessel would be very different to those of the vessels on which I was employed. (Because of cabotage laws preventing foreigners from serving on U.S. ships, I never served on a U.S. vessel.) However, on the ships I sailed it was often necessary for me to educate the watchkeeping officer in the basics of collision avoidance. Many would not know what lights would be displayed by sailing yachts, vessels not under command, towing vessels, etc.
Often, course alterations were made in collision-avoidance situations based on the perception of making it easier for the other vessel, rather than complying with the regulations. Crew sizes were often cut to the point at which a designated lookout was no longer possible, particularly if any hold cleaning or large maintenance jobs were underway. Ship owners were attempting to have single-person watches accepted as normal procedure.
As mentioned in the article, merchant vessels generally do not operate radar in open waters in clear visibility. VHF radios are usually left on, but I found that particularly among non-natural English speakers there was a reluctance to answer calls.
Even if a vessel does have an officer plus a lookout, there are times when no one would be keeping a good lookout, particularly around changes of watch when the lookout could be calling the next watch and the mate making logbook entries. When keeping a lookout on large vessels it’s easy to miss smaller vessels by looking at the horizon rather than andquot;into the waterandquot; at a closer range.
My recommendation for small boat operators encountering commercial vessels at night is to shine a good light on the sails or flash it at approaching ships. Also, act on the assumption that you have not been seen.
Once, while on a large cargo vessel in broad daylight, I had to alter course dramatically for a so-called give-way vessel. In one instance, calling on the VHF had no results until an hour later when the Greek captain explained that his second officer did not understand my attempt at communication.
To make matters worse, there can also be pressure from shipowners to break the law. Just 10 years ago I was asked – when under the andquot;safe manning certificateandquot;-to pump unusable diesel fuel overboard while in mid-Pacific in the middle of the night. I was also asked not to report broken radar sets to the Coast Guard prior to arrival in a U.S. port. While I refused, there were masters who would comply. This trend continues today since crew are increasingly worried about hanging onto their jobs. Ship owners and managers are concerned with the bottom line, and as long as they can obtain insurance they will hire the lowest-priced crew that can be found.
Thirty years ago one could generally accept that most vessels would act responsibly and in accordance with the Collision Regulations. This was definitely not the case in my later years as master.
If at all possible, give any ship as wide a berth as practical, alter course early, and establish VHF contact. And try to establish that you are indeed talking to the vessel in your sight.